Local bank holidays can help restore a national consensus

August 17, 2018

How did you celebrate Yorkshire Day? On the first day of August, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) did so by announcing that the county is the top exporter of manufacturing goods outside London. The MHCLG’s press release lauded Yorkshire’s most famous brands and industries and – in the words of Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse Minister – “recognise the tremendous achievements of the entrepreneurs, business owners, manufacturers and innovators who are leading the charge of the Northern Powerhouse with an export-driven economy at its heart.”

There are other examples of government celebrating counties. For instance, in the first year of the Coalition Government, and again in late 2013 and 2014, each of the 39 historic county flags was flown above the MHCLG. The exercise, introduced to recognise the attachment people have to their home county, began with the three cutlasses of Essex and ended with the white rose of Yorkshire. But the Government’s explicit marking of Yorkshire Day was a relatively rare thing. Lancashire Day on the 27th November, for instance, has passed by without comment since 2013.

From the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine, government exceptionalism when it comes to place and policymaking is nothing new – for instance the creation of the London mayoralty in 2000 and, further back, a post-War New Towns programme mostly focused on the South East. Yet, at a time when questions of nationhood and ‘our place in the world’ are regularly debated, celebrating the places and identities that make up the UK is arguably necessary to restoring a sense of collective endeavour to the nation.

If we are to forge a new national consensus, we need to foster and understand better the building blocks of the nation – both what Orwell called the ‘connecting thread’ that runs through us all and the ties that bind individual communities up and down the country. Government should be looking for more ways of expressing civic pride and local patriotisms. One way of doing this could be the introduction of local bank holidays.

It has been suggested St George’s Day is made a bank holiday in England – the idea was included in the 2017 Labour Manifesto – but another possibility is for city-regions and counties to decide their own bank holiday. Scotland and Northern Ireland already choose some bank holidays – in fact, Scottish workers had the first Monday of August off – so could individual city-regions and counties in England and Wales have this freedom too?

One country that does this already is Australia, where public holidays are declared by states and territories. This does not preclude public holidays like Australia Day and ANZAC Day being celebrated on a national basis. But regional public holidays are celebrated too: in Victoria, the Friday before the Australian Football League Grand Final is celebrated. In the Northern Territory every year Picnic Day is celebrated on the first Monday in August. And the anniversary of Aborigine recognition in the Australian population was celebrated for the first time in the Capital territory this year.

In England and Wales, the Government should choose to replace one of the eight existing bank holidays – which are said roughly to cost the UK economy around £2.3bn each – with a local holiday whose date and purpose is set by combined authorities in city-regions and county councils in the shires. Local bank holidays could be introduced as part of the Industrial Strategy, which government has pledged will be founded on the individual circumstance of places, and announced as a nationwide opportunity for proclaiming local pride. We could see St Piran’s Day made Cornwall’s bank holiday, the Miners’ Gala made a bank holiday in County Durham; and, rather than some press coverage and a government press release, Yorkshire Day become a day off for more than five million people.

There is a long history to bank holidays. They were first officially introduced in Victorian times by an Act of Parliament in 1871, but occasions of collective celebration are thought to date back to the Roman Saturnalia (the predecessor festival to Christmas). There is also a history to local bank holidays. Scottish local authorities are able to set their own public holiday if it is based on local tradition and local businesses have been consulted. Up until they closed altogether, it is also said that in the 1960s local factories across the UK would shut for the day for the celebration of local town holidays.

The point is we have always enjoyed expressions of solidarity and commonality. From May Day to Christmas Day, as well as days off work, bank holidays are a reminder of a shared past and meaning. The second point is we have always chopped and changed bank holidays to reflect the state and values of the nation. As the country takes a new path in its politics and economy, and as the Government seeks to restore a national consensus, it is time to look again at who sets bank holidays and when.

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